Do you really want to eat that? Study questions ingredients in many protein powders

Experts weigh in on health concerns involved

WDIV photo
WDIV photo

Whether it's to build muscle or have a quick meal on the go, more Americans are turning to protein powders. But a new study shows many of the top-selling supplements contain ingredients you might not want in your body.

Protein powders are driving the growth of the sports nutrition market, which has bulked up to $20 billion per year.

But before you run out to the store to pick up a jug, a new study has results that might make you think twice.

When you go on a diet, you're probably keeping track of what's going into your body, but when it comes to protein powders, many people don't look at what else is on the nutrition label.

The Clean Label Project is a nonprofit organization that examines safety issues. In its latest study, 134 top-selling protein powders were tested for contaminants, such as heavy metals.

"When you're taking a food product, mashing it up, concentrating it down, you're concentrating those dangerous metals," health expert Dr. Frank McGeorge said. "That means those products contain an abnormal amount to what a healthy normal diet might have. By drinking these contaminated formulas, you're giving yourself higher doses of dangerous things."

Of the powders tested, 55 percent had elevated levels of bisphenol S, or BPS, the starting material for making polycarbonate plastics. All contained detectable levels of at least one heavy metal, such as mercury and arsenic, which are substances linked to cancer, brain damage and reproductive issues.

Should we be concerned?

"It's hard to know how concerned we should be because (there are) different amounts of each heavy metal in any given product," McGeorge said. "It may even vary from batch to batch. The fact that there's any in them at all is of concern, but the degree of which we should be concerned is hard to gauge."

Some of the worst offenders were organic protein powders. The study found 70 percent of them had measurable levels of lead because organic products contain sweeteners that use plant-based ingredients. Those usually have higher levels of lead because they absorb heavy metals from soil.

The powder-making process makes it hard to eliminate toxins.

Do we really need protein powder?

"You don't need as much as you think you do," Savorfull nutritionist and CEO Stacy Goldberg said. "Many people tend to overdo it. They think, if one scoop is good, two scoops is better, and in many cases, your body can't metabolize what you're putting into it."

Unless you're an athlete burning a lot of calories or someone who needs to gain weight, protein powder isn't necessary, she said.

"My opinion with any supplements is that it's never a replacement for whole food and real food," Goldberg said.

There are easy ways to get the suggested 20 to 25 grams of protein into your diet.

"(Try) chicken, steak (and) eggs," Goldberg said. "I use different methods of protein, like peanut butter (and) things of that nature."

You can add foods such as yogurt, nuts, seeds and tofu to the list, and you could be getting protein without even knowing it.

"Protein is now being infused into so many different foods," Goldberg said. "Protein is in your ice cream, in your water, in your English muffin."

If you feel as if you need protein drinks or you want one as a meal on the go, just be careful about how you go about picking one.

"You need to understand what you're buying," Goldberg said.

For more tips on how to pick out a supplement that works for you, or to read the complete study that lists the protein powders that were tested, click here.